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The Rise of the Anthropologue

“With the exception of a mere handful of writings reports on African life have been unusually mealy-mouthed, and as for the observations of social scientists, these have tended to read as if the United Nations General Assembly were peering over the author’s shoulder as he wrote.”

White Science, Black Humour

(Encounter, December 1986)

“We found many of the natives dressed in a thin French gauze, which they called ‘byqui'; this being a light airy dress, and well calculated to display the shape of their persons. The manners of these females, however … were rude and troublesome in the highest degree … being so vehement in their solicitations that I found it impossible to resist them. They tore my cloak, cut the buttons from my boy’s clothes, and were proceeding to other outrages, when I mounted my horse and rode off, followed for half a mile by a body of these harpies… ” Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799)

Mungo Park was lucky to have that horse for his getaway. Even 200 years later a horse might still be useful, for as Nigel Barley relates, a modern traveller in West Africa may have to deal with women no less vehement in their solicitations—and certainly no less rude—who “walk straight up to the intended male and simply grasp him between the legs in a vice-like grip.” Barley explains that an exhausted visitor might find some respite from their attentions in the shelter of a hotel; yet even there he found himself pursued by “an extremely large Fulani woman in her mid-fifties”, bearing a distinct resemblance to Oliver Hardy, who pushed her way into his room and promptly began to unrobe. Very soon, he says, he found himself “trapped in a farce”.

Like a lot of the entertaining anecdotes in The Innocent Anthropologist and A Plague of Caterpillars, Dr Barley’s two books about anthropological fieldwork in Cameroon,1 this is obviously in questionable taste. And how grateful we must be for that, since with the exception of a mere handful of writings (the late Shiva Naipaul’s North of South comes to mind) reports on African life have been unusually mealy-mouthed, and as for the observations of social scientists, these have tended to read as if the United Nations General Assembly were peering over the author’s shoulder as he wrote. One never gets that sinister feeling with Barley’s work, which combines the candour and colour of the early traveller’s tales with a sharp wit and a laughing sense of the absurd.

This is just as well, for being “trapped in a farce” is the lot of every fieldworker. Misunderstandings never cease, and from the moment one muddily sets foot in a place like Cameroon, life is a comedy of errors. The times of appointments are wrong, not by hours, but by days: the ceremony has finished before one arrives. Recovering from setbacks like this, the anthropologist sits down to enquire into Cameroonian cosmology; but, tripped by a faulty noun, utters only farragos or obscenities.

Inevitably, word of his doings spreads. His more hilarious ineptitudes are related far and wide. He enters into lore: then into legend. The plain fact of the matter is that anthropologists provide so much innocent amusement that it is hard to believe the longueurs of primitive life were ever endurable without them. Sentimentalists sometimes tell of seeing tears in the eyes of their informants when, at long last, the farce concludes and the fieldworker packs to go home. But we all know why. Nothing can replace the fun an anthropologist provides.

Irreverent details

Yet anthropologists are not supposed to laugh back, even though primitive life abounds in material for guffaws. Doubtless it was Dr Barley’s violation of this rule of decorum, and the audible laughter echoing through his first book, which led The Guardian to describe it as “unconventional”; while The Times Literary Supplement, going further, felt obliged to comment on its “irreverent detail on African bureaucratic and anthropological customs.” Now, without wanting to make too much out of a casual expression, surely the word irreverent is a very odd one. Can the reviewer have actually believed that the normal attitude, and perhaps even the appropriate attitude toward “African bureaucratic and anthropological customs”, was one of reverence? Hardly. Yet it was a sound instinct which led the writer to this term, for as Barley himself said recently, “the subject of anthropology today is afflicted with a dreadful piety.”

The dreadfulness of this piety is a fairly recent development. It is mainly due to a notable change in the character and motives of those who are drawn to the subject of anthropology—a change which has seen the familiar figure of “the Anthropologist” being displaced by what, for want of a better term, we may call “the Anthropologue”.

At his best the anthropologist was disinterested. By contrast, when the anthropologue studies primitive life he always has an ulterior motive—often, if not invariably, of a salvationist kind. One consequence has been that the status of anthropology as a science is even shakier than it was, since science is of little or no interest to such people. Instead they vainly rummage about in the great ragbag of primitive cultures, seeking means of personal redemption or models for their political or ideological hopes.

Such high ambitions are not to be taken lightly. And this is the main reason why, like that prototypical anthropologue, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they are driven by a deep emotional necessity to dignify everything in the pre-industrial world. The laughable must be made grave; the repellent must be made somehow endearing; and the downright revolting must be swathed in a language so latinate and extraordinary that it is often hard to know exactly what is going on. Words like sacred, sacral, and ritualistic may be called on to produce a vaguely sanctifying effect; and if this is successful, then plain speaking about African tribal life will always seem tasteless, and usually irreverent as well.

Plain speaking, of course, is the very last thing your true anthropologue wants—as a glance at Basil Davidson’s The Africans (1969) shows. When Mr Davidson wrote this, it was as an enthusiastic auxiliary rather than as a ranking member of the anthropological corps. But his chapter on kings and kingdoms in Africa could hardly be improved upon as an example of the language of anthropologuery and how it works.

The challenge, mind you, is considerable: his topic includes that place of legendary horrors, 19th-century Benin. But he takes it all in his stride. Speaking respectfully of “the royal party” and the “atmosphere of majesty at court” the author glances, more in sorrow than in anger, at a priesthood whose sacrificial excesses may simply have resulted from a fit of theocratic zeal; and he even manages to suggest that the carnage found by the British force of 1897 was largely, if not wholly, of their own making.

The quintessence of kingship

A quotation referring to kingship among the Nigerian Jukun extols “the indefinable spiritual potency which is the quintessence of kingship … immortal and indivisible”; while Davidson’s own prose, swelling in honour of his royal theme, proclaims that the Ashanti king was “the manifest apex and prime representative” of his people, whose task was to “procure unbroken the moral order” of the state. The moral order of the Tutsi state was symbolised by a “ritual drum”, and the cumulative adjectival effect Basil Davidson achieves is so majestical and impressive that we can only regard it as a gross tactical error when the author admits that the “ritual drum” is festooned with severed testicles, donated (presumably under duress) by defeated enemies of the king.

It is a thousand pities that Nigel Barley wasn’t around in 1897 to give us his impression of life at the court of Benin. Any man who can title one of his chapters “Ex Africa Semper Quid Nasty” would surely have revelled in the pits full of sacrificial victims and the altars running with gore. Still, I suppose we should be grateful that we have him at all, however belatedly, because his humorous attempts to throw light on current anthropological superstitions would be welcome at any time.

He observes that it is one of the more dearly held beliefs of a certain kind of fieldworker that you can only get to know your people, and win their acceptance, by labouring in a comradely way side by side while tilling the soil. But in The Innocent Anthropologist we find that the Dowayo of North Cameroon regard this insistent egalitarianism as pure affectation. As soon as they set eyes on Barley they know at once that this visiting Englishman is made for higher things than hewing wood or drawing water; when he tried to do so, he writes, “frail old ladies insisted on carrying the water jar for me.”

In his latest book, A Plague of Caterpillars, he again pokes fun at exhibitionistic “solidarity with the workers”, but this time it takes on a deeper seriousness with the appearance of Bob, the “Black White Man”. (The designation “Black White Man” is Cameroonian for a black man who is Westernised and behaves like a white man.) In the absurdity of his career and his expectations, Bob’s story has in it much of the pathos surrounding the sort of people drawn to anthropology in the era of the anthropologues. When Barley picks him up by the roadside and gives him a lift into town, the Black White Man, (an Afro-American), describes himself as an anthropologist.

Soul brotherhood

It turns out that Bob’s is the sort of anthropology offered in a Black Studies course at an American East Coast college, a course which led him to believe that “it was vital for coloured Americans to have an alternative cultural tradition that would assign them a higher place than did the white one.” He never celebrated Christmas, but observed an obscure festival of Swahili origin, and was mortified to discover that Africans had never heard of it. He had learned Swahili in the USA, and imposed it on his wife and children for one day a week in the house:

“Having never been informed otherwise and having assumed that Africa was in some sense a unity, he had been genuinely astonished that no one in Cameroon could speak it or had even heard of the language.”

Arrived in Africa, he installed his wife and three children in a waterless hut in an unsalubrious section of the town, “in order to share the rich and colourful life of the local people and “find his roots’.” Result: appalled by everything, and being sensible people never exposed to anthropology, his wife and children ran off home to the USA as fast as they could.

Bob so accurately depicts the confused alienation of many recruits to anthropology today that he seems almost too good to be true. Can we really believe in this incarnation of Soul Brotherhood whose determination not to impose on his African fellows the indignity of menial tasks “led him to refuse all offers from washermen, gardeners, house-repairers, drivers and the like”, thus directly violating the African rule that it is the duty of the rich to supply employment for the poor, and destroying all attempts to know the people?

Is Bob a fact or an artefact? The bit about being black is intriguing. But perhaps it is only a story-teller’s disguise, for the emotional and ethical make-up of the Black White Man is so eerily like that of certain White Black Men I have met that for all I know he’s just an ingenious invention. And if that is the case, shouldn’t a charge of wantonly fictionalising his material be indignantly brought against Barley by his peers?

Anthropology à la mode

Fat chance! Both Dr Barley and his Black White Man are on safe ground. And this is because so many practitioners of anthropology à la mode regard distinctions between fact and fiction as both positivistic and passé—and, more seriously, in very bad taste. For many years now they have thought and argued that, given the subjectivity of observers and the bias of observation, it would be the most painful of solecisms high-handedly to call for a distinction between facts and fiction in the name of anthropological “science”. All one can hope to do—all one should hope to do—is interpret the infinitely varied frames of social action; to decode the infinite codes of meaning which social life presents, codes layered as richly as a semantic sedimentary deposit 100 feet thick. They would gladly use almost any other word than science to describe this game of cultural cryptography—if only one existed of equal prestige.

“Interpretive explanation”, wrote Clifford Geertz in 1980, is a form of explanation, not just exalted glossography” (my emphasis). But there was a defensiveness in his phrasing all the same. Does it explain? And what does it explain? Could hermeneutics (“the science of interpretation, traditionally applied to the discovery of the real but hidden meanings of sacred texts”) ever even try to explain the principal dynamic forces of social life?

Stimulating this interpretive push was the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, work which increasingly authorised a form of ratiocinative aestheticism as the proper way of understanding the primitive world. All things cultural were best seen as shaped into symmetries and patterns—if only, that is, enough ethnographic odds-and-ends were assembled, and if enough inspired ingenuity were applied to their arrangement.

Just how far the Paris master himself was prepared to go in his explanatory claims for aestheticism can be found in The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (1964, tr. 1970), which he hoped would be listened to as a sort of “musical work, as the plan and chapter headings try to suggest.” In what he calls the “Overture” to its “confused and indigestible pages” (and this characterisation is his own) Levi-Strauss asserts that:

“music itself is the supreme mystery of the science of man a mystery that all the various disciplines come up against and which holds the key to their progress …”

This enterprise simultaneously posed as a form of scientific enquiry, and prudently disclaimed any such status. Of the discussion of mythology to be found in The Raw and the Cooked, its author announced that “this book on myth is itself a kind of myth.” But within metamythology what did it matter if reality was this way or that? Whether it was the object or its mirror image, or any one of an infinite recession of subjectivities which had become the locus of enquiry? The important thing was not to notice what the recessive series was actually receding from.2

Spellbinding tales

When a narrative study of myths, and the myths themselves, were defined as pretty much the same thing (explanans and explanandum democratically shaking hands), this kind of anthropology could all too easily be regarded as little more than “the telling of tales about the tales other people tell.” There could not, according to the rules of this game, be such a thing as a false tale; nor was it easy to see how research which succeeded could be distinguished from research which had failed. Success would apparently be measured by the persuasiveness of the narrative, or the spellbinding nature of the tale.

Once this was accepted, anthropology à la mode became an intellectual disaster zone, waiting for Carlos Castaneda to happen. And pat he came, like the catastrophe in the old comedy, a real live sorcerer’s apprentice carrying under his arm a book he had written. The book’s title was The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), and the title was itself significant, for it popularised the mere apprehension of the occult as “knowledge”. This usage, along with talk about there being a “way” toward it, was the traditional usage of mysticism; in future, the language of mysticism would often be anthropology’s language too. References to the knowledge of witches and sorcerers, meaning simply the baseless and unverified beliefs of witches and sorcerers, became commonplace in student essays—and not only there.3

After Castaneda’s global sales passed into the millions his muse appears to have fallen silent. But he had made his point, and had won disciples: the book Shabono: A Visit to a Remote and Magical World in the Heart of the South American Jungle (1982), written by yet another sometime California student of anthropology and bearing encomia on its cover from Castaneda himself, shows that the strain of writing he pioneered is still alive and well. Shabono, however, seems to have been received rather more sceptically than its predecessors.

A reviewer in The American Anthropologist discovered that this supposedly new work was largely made up of material pilfered from the earlier Yanoamo: The Narrative of a White Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians (1971). It is worth noting, moreover, that in the course of discovering the fraudulent nature of Shabono, “the most unsettling clue” (according to the reviewer) was the crudity of the borrowings—not factual errors in the ethnographic detail.

The detection of plagiarism requires a sensitivity to literary rather than scientific criteria. Presumably, had the author shown more skill in the art of fabrication, her work (like Casteneda’s) might have enjoyed for a while the status of social science”. Marvin Harris’s criticism of interpretive anthropology as “mystification … an esoteric and nihilistic venture”, the product of “essentially literary minds hostile to applying scientific methods”4 may be relevant here. As scientific method declines, literary methods (a weak defence at best) may be all that remains as a protection against fraud.

The dialectitians move in

With the empirical base of the discipline becoming undermined and discredited, it was inevitable that the dialecticians would move in. Inevitable, in the first place, because the affinities between the anthropologues and the Marxists are so close. Both share an atavistic enthusiasm for BC—Before Commerce, Before Capitalism, Before Civilisation itself. The average academic Marxist, even while tippling convivially at the bar, betrays a deep unhappiness in modern industrial society, and is obviously pining for a more primitive social order than modern capitalism provides.

And the anthropologue is no less unhappy—anthropology being, as the editor of the quarterly journal Dialectical Anthropology, Stanley Diamond, has so trenchantly said, “the most alienated of the professions.” When both Marxists and anthropologues realised they had so much in common, they rushed into each other’s arms.5Observers foresaw a happy marriage, while wedding guests were later heard to remark that the only surprising thing was that it hadn’t taken place years before.

So much for the teachers. What about the taught? The success of Marxism was inevitable, in the second place, because it is so much more emotionally satisfying for modern anthropology students than the alternatives. Playing around with the meaning of meaning and the signification-of-signs can be very tough mental work, whether you are trying to follow Wittgenstein or Levi-Strauss.

Only a few rare souls can find fulfilment in translating a corpus of primitive fables into literary symphony—and after you’ve done it, what then? But the programme of the Marxist anthropologues requires only the mastery of a few slogans and cliches, leads straight from the lecture room into the streets, and promises not only the drama of local demonstrations but a sense of participating in world-historical upheavals in foreign lands.

Inevitable, in the third place, because for both the teachers and the taught it presented a congenially Manichaean view of the world—on one side the satanical West: on the other, the poor and oppressed. All the free-floating evangelical energy of our time could now be employed demonstrating, in course after course in the anthropological curriculum, that European expansion and colonialism

“created the underdevelopment of the Third World [and that] a constant drain of wealth … has produced incredible poverty and has not only hampered but systematically destroyed indigenous economic development.”

Indian poverty was created by the British, and

“…we will see that it is no accident that the post-colonial governments of Africa, Asia, and modern Latin America have so often been repressive dictatorships, and that so often military regimes of right-wing generals or admirals run countries in what is often curiously called the ‘free world’… The stake of the United States in maintaining police states in the Third World … Pinochet and the army … the Chilean ruling classes … The Shah’s police state … the Somoza dynasty … ” etc.

Political sorcery in Cameroon

Shadows are lengthening across the walls of the Seminar Room. The speaker has just returned from Cameroon. In a mixture of his native Dutch and the usual Marxified jargon he talks about “ze hegemonic project of ze neo-colonial elite under conditions of capitalist penetration.” His talk has been billed as a discussion of “Sorcery as Political Protest”; but after a few sketchy suggestions about revolutionary witchcraft he loses interest and has to admit that in Cameroon witches are everywhere. One feels that Nigel Barley’s presence would be welcome.

A still surviving Tory slumbers fitfully. The Leninists smile encouragingly at what they hope are jests (are those, perhaps, Dutch jokes?). At question time a grey-faced woman asks anxiously about Gramsci, while a particle of dust, drifting slowly down upon her agitated head, catches the evening light. Do the sorcerers constitute a potential hegemonic bloc? The speaker fondles his oily curls but is non-committal. A merciful silence follows.

Yes indeed, the Golden Age of Anthropology is well and truly dead.


1 The Innocent Anthropologist. By Nigel Barley. Penguin Travel Library, £2.95. A Plague of Caterpillars: A Return to the African Bush. By Nigel Barley. Viking, £9.95. Published in the US as Ceremony: Adventures in a Mud Hut. Henry Holt, $14.95.

2 Note the frequency of recursive or recessive formations in Clifford Geertz’s useful survey, “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought”, American Scholar (No. 49, 1980), pp. 165-179: “so many signs signing signs …  what we assert in asserting … how we think about how we think… “

3 See Kenneth Minogue, “The Guru: Thoughts after Reading Carlos Castaneda” (Encounter, August 1976).

4 See “Anthropology’s Native Problems” by Louis A. Sass, Harper’s Magazine (May 1986), p. 52.

5 From Chapter 21, “The Creation of the Third World”, in Roger Keesing’s widely-used introductory student textbook. Cultural Anthropology (1981).

Posted in Civilization.